SyFy’s "Twilight Zone" marathon kicks off over the July 4th weekend. Some of you may have missed it last year; it played on New Year’s but took a breather over Independence Day, but now it’s back. It airs all day July 3 and July 4. Check out the schedules for those days here and here.
It seems appropriate to think of the best episodes of this iconic series. For hardcore fans, this can be controversial, because there are so many awesome segments to choose from. Let me just say that these are my favorites, and if yours doesn’t make the list, I apologize and I understand. Stay tuned for a Top 25 coming later. For now, the Top 10:
10. The Trouble With Templeton – Season Two – Dec. 9, 1960
This is not a traditional choice among ‘Twilight Zone’ scholars, but it’s got one of the most beautiful scenes of the series, and for that, I rate it high. Brian Aherne, a movie star in his time, stars as Booth Templeton, a stage actor past his prime. He speaks of his young wife, Laura, who died tragically young, as he looks out his window at his current spouse, a woman who takes more companions to their pool than he can count.
When he goes back in time after a disastrous play reading is where the action really starts. He goes back to 1927 to the Speakeasy days, and finds people who have been long dead – including his friend Barney and his beautiful wife, Laura (Pippa Scott). The scene in which they act obnoxious and drive him back to his current life is precisely what “acting” is all about.
We learn their act is just that – an act – when Booth storms out and everyone in the speakeasy suddenly turns pensive and tragic. The look on Laura’s face when he leaves shows a woman full of regret and sorrow, and perhaps hope for his future.
The episode also sports a fine early performance from director Sydney Pollack, and a poignant score by Jeff Alexander.
9. The Hitchhiker – Season One – Jan. 22, 1960
A creepy story based on a real experience. Nan Adams (Inger Stevens) sees the same hitchhiker trying to bum rides as she drives across Interstate 80 from coast to coast. It’s based on a short story by Lucille Fletcher, Bernard Herrmann’s first wife, born out of an instance when she saw the same hitchhiker twice along the road on the same trip.
While Stevens plays Nan as panicked and high strung (effectively, not annoyingly), the hitchhiker is totally calm, and as she describes him, “kind of mousy.” It isn’t until almost the end that we learn his true intent. Similar to ‘Nothing in the Dark,’ he is Death, beckoning her to her grave.
That final scene where Stevens learns she is dead is perhaps the finest acted part of the episode. She goes dead calm, similar to the hitchhiker, when she hears those words: “Nan died in an automobile accident in Pennsylvania. A tire blew out and her car turned over.” Seeing the Hitchhiker after that, in her rearview mirror, doesn’t freak her out one bit.
8. The Invaders – Season Two – Jan. 27, 1961
This is absolutely the most visual episode of the series, and also one of the most rewarding in terms of plot twists. Agnes Moorhead gives a delicate, wordless performance as a country woman – later revealed as a giant on an alien planet. Her home is “crude” as Rod Serling points out in the opening narration. It could be Appalachia, or it could be outside our solar system.
The general premise is simple enough: a flying saucer lands on this poor woman’s roof, and the tiny space aliens stalk her in her home, attacking her with strange weapons. She tries to defend herself with rustic weapons but is retaliated against with them, including a kitchen knife.
She wins in the end, though, by hacking the saucer with an axe. It’s only then when the final reveal shows the aliens’ true source – the U.S. Air Force. The episode is buoyed by a frightening score by Jerry Goldsmith, one that would be used as stock music in future episodes. Plus, it’s got cinematography with exquisite lighting and a slam-dunk performance by Moorhead, an Oscar-nominated actress better known later for popcorn fare like the sitcom ‘Bewitched.’
7. The After Hours – Season One – June 10, 1960
To understand how fantastic this outing is, look at the clip below and check out the remake of the 1980s ‘Twilight Zone’ TV series. After you sit through the silly hairstyles, bad acting and ridiculous attempt at creepiness, then watch the original.
It draws you in right away. It’s interesting, bizarre and downright suspenseful.
It wouldn’t have been as great without Anne Francis, who is superb as Marsha White, a live mannequin who walks into a department store to buy a gold thimble and doesn’t realize what she really is. The opening sequence with Elizabeth Allen as a friend – and fellow mannequin – is a lesson in perfectly subtle acting by both women.
There is also a frightening sequence when Marsha is trapped in the store and doesn’t know how to get out. The close-ups of her feet as she wanders down aisle after aisle will make your heart rate speed up. And the final outcome, with all the mannequins coming to life, is moving.
6. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet – Season Five – Oct. 11, 1963
This is one of the most famous – and most parodied – episodes. William Shatner gives a perfect panicked performance as Bob Wilson, an airline passenger on his way home from a mental institution. He was there because he suffered a nervous breakdown… while on an airplane. Yeah.
The story is one from the “I swear I’m not crazy” canon. We identify with him when he sees that stuffed Panda Bear Alien on the wing. We get annoyed every time that Panda flies away when anyone else can potentially see it, and we sympathize when everyone treats him like a nutjob. The look on Shatner’s face when he realizes the pilot is full of BS is priceless.
The atmosphere has got it all – loud engines, rain hitting the windows, jarring music. And, of course, that classic moment when Shatner pulls open the curtain to the creature’s face pressed up against the window. Perfection.
5. Nothing in the Dark – Season Three – Jan. 5, 1962
Most don’t rank this story so highly, but I think its emotion resonates more strongly than many others. Gladys Cooper gives one of the show’s most memorable and sensitive performances as Wanda Dunn, a woman so afraid of coming across Death that she dead bolts her door and stays in her bed while her groceries are delivered.
The details are magnificent. The opening shot of Wanda shows her behind her bed frame, which for all the world look like prison bars. A high class actress, Cooper portrays her with a lower London accent and a sad sense of reality. Balancing this is Robert Redford as a cop, wounded in the line of duty, who convinces her to let him into her home.
The final outcome – that the cop is Death and the woman’s number is up – may not be terribly surprising, but it’s awfully effective, from Bernard Herrmann’s recycled score to the camerawork to Cooper’s completely subtle and honest portrayal.
4. ‘Time Enough at Last’ – Season One – Nov. 20, 1959
This has one of the series’ most heartbreaking final outcomes. The main character, Henry Bemis, is played sensitively by Burgess Meredith. Henry is a banker who is an avid reader, and for some reason, everyone who meets him is appalled by his bookworm tendencies. His wife is an utter nag, his boss a complete imbecile. So, Henry gets no satisfaction from daily life except when he gets to read, uninterrupted, over his lunch hour in the bank’s safe.
Here’s where it gets interesting. A huge atomic bomb hits when Henry is encapsulated, and this leaves him (apparently) the only nearby survivor. His boss is a goner, as is his wife, who seems victim to their toppled home.
But, at last, Henry stumbles upon the library, where the books miraculously remain largely intact. He’s about to dive into a hearty reading list when he stumbles and breaks his glasses. The final image of him crumbled on the library steps is one of the series’ iconic images.
3. ‘The Eye of the Beholder’ – Season Two – Nov. 11, 1960
Now here’s one for the ages. This episode bears all the signs of a TZ classic – great performances, fantastic cinematography and makeup, and perhaps most important of all, an unbelievably clever plot twist. The problem with an episode like this is, it’s so famous that it’s been parodied hundreds of times and can be hard to take entirely seriously. But we must remember the reason for that: the episode’s utter brilliance.
If you’re seeing this for the first time, I am jealous. The plot seems uncomplicated: Miss Janet Tyler is in the hospital, bandages around her face, hoping that plastic surgery will correct her horrific ugliness. She’s had many surgeries, and if this one doesn’t go well, then, this is it. It doesn’t, and it is.
In the most shocking reveal of any episode, Miss Tyler is found to be completely beautiful by any commercial standard. She has curly blond hair, big eyes and a turned up nose. But her caretakers are the opposite: they have pig faces, snouts, huge wrinkles and sagging mouths. But to them, she is hideous. The title (changed from the original, which still appears on some prints, ‘A Private World of Darkness’) says it all: It all depends on how you look at it. Kudos to Maxine Stuart, who delivers a virtuoso performance under the bandages, and to Donna Douglas, the Janet Tyler revealed from under the bandages, who mimics the other actress’ voice to perfection.
2. ‘Walking Distance’ – Season One – Oct. 30, 1959
This episode has its followers, but it’s also an underappreciated gem. The central story – a New York ad agency man (Gig Young) going back in time to his hometown – might seem simple, but the emotional complexities of the plot and performances give the episode tremendous weight.
Not only does the story reflect America’s hardcore working habits – evident even in 1959 – it highlights everyone’s fantasy of going home again, of re-living childhood. As the story illustrates, going back again doesn’t work out like you would hope, and that’s the point.
Gig Young gives an outstanding performance as Martin Sloan, who seems to travel back in time out of desperation. The details are, again, perfect. The Victorian houses, park carousels and haircuts are indicative of the 1930s. Look for a cameo of an uber-young Ron Howard.
To me, the best part of the episode is the music score by the legendary Bernard Herrmann. The peak of it, at least for me, is when Martin goes to his childhood home and gets the door slammed in his face by his parents. Herrmann’s score reflects the pain, the sorrow, the reflection and the irony all at once.
1. ‘The Midnight Sun’ – Season Three, Nov. 17, 1961
Many love this episode, but it’s not always heralded as one of the series’ best. But I think it is. It sports a great central performance, an unusual plot, a shocking final twist, and intricate details that contribute to the story’s atmosphere unlike any other episode.
First off, credit must be given to Lois Nettleton as Norma. She is utterly believable, and slightly lonely, as a New York artist who decides to fight it out after the Earth moves closer to the Sun. Neighbors flee, people get caught in traffic jams headed north, but Norma stays, paints, and keeps people company, especially her neighbor (an effective Betty Garde) as the heat melts everything.
The final twist – that Norma is actually suffering from a fever and the Earth is actually moving away from the sun – is a shocker. But what makes the episode are the ways heat are communicated on film. On a budget of under $60,000, the crew did a tremendous job. Norma’s paintings melt when the mercury soars; Van Cleave’s score has a hollow and pathetic quality; and make-up on the actors is perfect. This story couldn’t have been executed any better and that’s what makes it an unforgettable classic.
Well, this is my Top 10, but there are so many more I want to highlight. Check back soon and I will show you the rest of my Top 25 ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes.